June 6, 2011

How to Say It: Why are you leaving your old job?

Filed under: How to Say It, Interviewing, Readers' Forum

In the June 7, 2011 Ask The Headhunter Newsletter, a reader asks what to say when an interviewer inquires why you’re leaving your old employer:

I work in a business where there is a constant flow of people in and out of our office, and a high volume of customers calling on the phone. We get a lot of complaints from customers, and quite a bit of verbal abuse. My co-workers and I don’t feel safe. Extreme as it sounds, we worry about someone walking in the door and going bonkers.

I began a job search this week, and I’ve read online comments about what to say when asked the reasons for leaving my old job. I’ve been advised never to say anything bad about the company, including that it’s not safe. So, I am not sure how to answer this question any more. I have an interview coming up. Can you please give me some advice about what to say when I’m asked the reasons I am leaving my current job? Thanks very much.

Here’s the short version of my advice: (For the entire column, you need to subscribe to the free weekly newsletter. Don’t miss another edition!)

You could be leaving your job because you don’t see growth opportunities, or because you have just grown tired of the work. Or, you might not get along with other employees, or with management. While any of these reasons are legitimate, how you express them could cost you a job opportunity. While some employers are interested in your motivations, I believe this question is almost always “loaded.” The employer wants to know whether you’re trouble.

As you can see, the real problem with this question is that you have no way of knowing the interviewer’s intent. And it’s not worth guessing and being wrong.

If you believe that explaining your reasons for leaving your last job will reflect well on you, then by all means explain. If you’re worried it will hurt you, then keep mum.

How to Say It
“I love my work, and I want to work in a better company where I am free to do my job effectively.”

If they ask you what the problem is with your current employer, be honest:

“I’m looking for a good job with a good company, but I never disparage anyone I’ve ever worked with… I came to you because your company seems to be one of the shining lights in this industry, and I’d like to talk about how I can help you be more profitable…” (…This is the missing part… Sorry, but you must subscribe to the newsletter to get the entire Answer and Commentary in the newsletter… Don’t wait til next week… Sign up now… it’s free!)

That’s the best way I know to approach any employer, and to get past that question. Focus on the company you’re meeting with, not on your past or your old company. And be candid about your policy of not bad-mouthing anyone, including your last employer.

I’m sorry you’ve been through so much. Look ahead, find a really good company, and explain how you’re going to help them be more successful. That’s what any good employer looks for.

It’s one of those tricky interview questions: Why are you leaving your old job? If you’re leaving because you’re unhappy, that opens up a can of worms in the interview. So, what do you say, and how do you say it? My suggestion in this week’s newsletter is one way to handle it. How have you handled this? Did it work? Or did it backfire?

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29 Comments on “How to Say It: Why are you leaving your old job?”
By Dave
June 7, 2011 at 9:12 am

I am looking to change the type of work I do, I’m in IT, still want to be in IT, but want to do something different and have different challenges (and “move up the ladder” as they say). I’m honest about my convictions and people are generally receptive to it. Who wants a schlub who doesn’t want to be challenged?

Of course, people in my boat are in a unique situation, and it’s not like we’re moving laterally. So, I’ve never had it backfire. :-)

By Don Harkness
June 7, 2011 at 9:31 am

I think the point that the basic intent of the question is to assess if the person is trouble, bringing baggage.
But remember it’s just a question, don’t obcess over it. I favor honesty. In this particular case the only sensitivity in saying it’s not safe is you’re also saying in your view the company allows unsafe conditions, which someone could construe as criticizing your current company.
But you mentioned another aspect of the job, is that you handle a high # of complaints, safe or unsafe. As a hiring manager I wouldn’t view you as potential trouble if you told me more or less…thank you very much I’ve paid my dues in the complaint business and would like to work in something more pleasant. You don’t have to overengineer your answer.
Let me give an example. In a prior life I often hired IT customer support people. Yes, those folks you call when your computer throws up on you. You’ve got a more than 50% chance the callers aren’t happy campers, and may not be rationale or polite. These people take a lot of verbal abuse. While not unsafe, there’s a limit to how long you can do this for a living, because you may or may not be aware, that the nature of the work is these people are metric’d on how many calls they handle per shift & the duration of same. So they sit between the irate customer and a pushy management. Aside from a certain # of personalities who thrive on the challenge and people skills, as I said, they move on. So I don’t think ill of them when they look for something more sane.
I think you can look at it this way, think it through and provide a sensible and satsifactory answer to this question. Are you running from something? Or to Something?. As a hiring manager, that’s what I want to know. In this example, definitely from something, but emphasize and focus on the 2nd part. If you’re changing jobs, in for a penny in for a pound, got for something you’d really like to do and hammer away on that and low ball the reason you’re leaving as a time-to-move-on for reasons any rationale person could relate to.
As a hiring manager in light of this question I’d weigh it with a view on your total track record. If you change jobs often, I may conclude you’re running from something all the time….you. Doing a geography, thinking a new venue will cure your job ailments. If you are the cause of your job ailments a new job does squat, because you take you with you.

By Unicorn
June 7, 2011 at 10:27 am

I told the truth when asked what a particular boss would say about me. Part of that was “well, he just didn’t seem to like me very much”. This stunned my interviewer, VP person. “Why did you just tell me that?” Me “I don’t know. Because it’s true.” I did not get the job. But flashforward a couple months later…I got contacted, asked if I was still interested. I said “yes”. And then after more interviews…I got hired! I now work there. They won’t tell me much about why the person they hired over me was fired. But my honesty in this case? Perhaps that is the reason I was their first choice when push came to shove.

By Brandon
June 7, 2011 at 10:33 am

I would be open to feedback on this response…

“I joined XXXXX a number of years ago, and it’s proven to have been a great opportunity. I have learned much from my manager and peers, and I’ve developed new skills and grown professionally. However because of these long lasting relationships, I’m often still viewed as the person I was when I joined and not necessarily the person I have since become….”

It can be interpreted as a negative, but it’s also an honest evaluation of someone’s situation that most of us can identify with.

By Don Harkness
June 7, 2011 at 10:42 am

Brandon, it sounds too wordy, philosophical. I think you’re simply saying, I’ve enjoyed my time with my company, learned, but there’s no room to continue growing.

By G
June 7, 2011 at 10:49 am

The important thing is to figure out a way to say you’re leaving that emphasizes the new and wonderful aspects of the job you’re applying for and criticizes the old job only to the extent that it is missing those aspects. In other words, present the new job as an opportunity that you are dying to take up and run with.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 7, 2011 at 11:14 am

What a great bunch of suggestions so far…! So much of the success in this situation depends on how the candidate delivers the information, and on using good judgment.

By Bob
June 7, 2011 at 12:04 pm

What about when the company doesn’t follow through?

I had worked at company X. During my interviews, I had asked about work/life balance. HR, my boss, and my co-workers all assured me that work/life balance was important to them and they had it in spades.

Shortly after I arrive, the CEO praised a man for working for 6 months,full time even through his honeymoon. Next they announce a new work plan where the practical effect is that we would all have to work 9-10 hours daily.

How does one say why they are looking to leave when the company fails it’s promise?

By Unicorn
June 7, 2011 at 12:15 pm

I am a fan of the cagey answers. I think we need to be authentic. But say the truth when relevant, with tack.

By Unicorn
June 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

I am NOT a fan of cagey answers. Sorry, on smart phone…

By Dave
June 7, 2011 at 12:23 pm

@Bob

I would be honest as much as I could with any future employer.

Tell them that the work-life balance wasn’t what it was billed to be. Most resaonable people understand the occassional “overtime,” but once it becomes “normal,” especially without additional compensation, perks or additional staff, it becomes very uncomfortable. It reflects poorly on management.

During an interview, if a company is going to squak at your answer, maybe they aren’t worth working for – they suffer from the same issues?

By Nick Corcodilos
June 7, 2011 at 12:30 pm

Hope I was clear with my suggestion. I’m not a fan of cagey answers, either. As with the “What’s your salary history?” question, I prefer to just decline to answer, politely. Ditto on this topic: “I never disparage anyone I work with.”

I dunno… is that cagey? I suppose you could say, “I never talk about past employers.” I suppose my suggestion has a built-in, implied message that something was wrong at the old company, and I don’t want to talk about it. I suppose that’s intentional. And maybe that’s cagey.

My intent is to make it clear that I won’t get into details, because if there was a problem at the old company, that’s the point where a person is likely to start sending unintended, negative signals that arouse suspicion — one after another. It’s hard to shut up once you start going…

How’s that for thinking this one through out loud…? ;-)

By Bob
June 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm

Nick,
The problem I think the person asked you is ‘what do I say when the interviewer asks why I am leaving’ and the answer is ‘because the situation is unsafe’ or ‘I came to this job based on a lie’.

If the answer is ‘Let me tell you why I think I’d like to work for you’, fine. I can live with that.

But I’d like to reach out and ask if it is ever good to say ‘they lied and I don’t like it; and furthermore ‘this issue is important to me so let’s discuss.’?

By Don Harkness
June 7, 2011 at 2:11 pm

Bob, I can’t think of any situation where it’s good to say “they lied and I don’t like it”..because it puts a red flag on the play. It screams “emotional” not rationale and as a manager I’d prefer to avoid emotional. Bottom line are you leaving because they lied? or because the hours suck? The latter cleaned up as I want more time with my family is more rationale and understandable.
and if it’s important discuss it, that’s one of your questions in your interview to them.
But this is an area that is a really good example of what’s come up in other discussions, networking and researching companies. In the high-tech world most of the high fliers take pride in their work/work balance, where the programmers proudly display their sleeping bags hanging behind the door. It’s no dark secret, networking around to employees and/or even trade publications bring it to light.
So if it is important, before you set foot in that prospective company’s door nose around. Your example of that CEO’s monument to the ideal employee would be around all over the company and foreknowledge would have been forwarning.

By Karen Carleton
June 7, 2011 at 2:50 pm

“Why are you leaving your old job?” I was honest, diplomatic and tactful, leaving on excellent terms with my now former supervisor and co-workers, even though I could only give a week’s notice (all work was more than done). Reasons were pure and simple: not enough work, no opportunities to use my skills/knowledge despite doing my best to initiate projects, and there were no career opportunities, despite my being identified as a “high performer”.

I wrote further details on the Exit Interview Survey, indicating I had applied for a higher status job I was perfectly suited for and it was given to someone with no skills or advanced education in the field (unlike me). I mentioned appreciating my boss and co-workers and the attempts to find me meaningful work (always frustrated by organizational culture and structure). It worked out wonderfully and I pictured myself coming back as a contractor which I did (briefly). They had a “no reference” policy (post-employment) anyway, so I wasn’t too worried about it in the end.

By Don Harkness
June 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm

Karen a great example. Good reason for leaving and blowing kisses on the way out. Your reasons for leaving are especially good beyond the common sense reasons. You hang management on one of the current fashionable petards, one your prospective employer should not only understand, but respect you for. It’s called “career development”. Time was back in the day there was an understanding that if you were a solid performer, the company would advance you…grow you. develop you. Tacitly your boss had the responsibility performed in varying degrees of goodness. Then management decided that your career development was your responsibility and preached accordingly. Your manager and the company was to assist. Personally I believe the best formula is shared and lies between. Your mind can’t be read, so you need to put shape to aspirations, improve your value add etc, but management should know your strengths and potential and has insights you don’t, as well as helping position you to grow (e.g. training).
So when you walk into an interview with the reasons you gave, in management speak you are a person in charge of their career development. You know where you want to go, and you know there’s no way ahead where you are. Hence you are just the kind of person they should want..a person managing your career. with this perspective, if asked that question point blank. ..”why are you leaving etc”. just smile and turn it right around and point it back at them as an HR/Mgmt career development discussion, and a question of their own…”How do you address career development at ABC Company? By the way if you can’t get an intelligent answer you might consider calling it a day as far as they are concerned.

This is a timely topic. For the past 3 years and still unfortunately for a lot of people it was a no brainer. You didn’t leave your last job….it left you. Laid off.
as the job picture improves and when you hit another scenario where prospective employers want employed candidates..the question will become more important.

By Erika
June 7, 2011 at 3:20 pm

I agree with Don Harkness. “They lied and I don’t like it” is never a positive, will never advance a candidate. “I want to spend more time with my family” does convey the same concept without getting emotional. If you ever say, “They lied…” to a potential employer, the potential employer will think that one day you may say the same or worse about them to others in your field. I agree nosing around is the best way to find the truth, if you can wander the halls. This is not possible in all professions, such as at a high security chemical plant or government scientific research facility.

Nick’s reply, “I never disparage anyone I work with” does indeed convey that there were issues without getting into it.

With regard to Karen’s reply, she was right to move on, but I see little to be gained by doing exit interviews. I would never write that a job was given to “someone with no skills or advanced education in the field” because it calls management’s judgment into question and changes nothing. Just move on and leave it alone. That person with no skills or education could be in a retaliatory position someday, if they ever learn of the remark— these things aren’t always as confidential as they are supposed to be. I am glad that it worked out wonderfully so far.

By Dave
June 7, 2011 at 3:33 pm

@Karen and @Don

Agree with your last two posts. It seems a lot of places (especially smaller places in my experience) seem adverse to having people move into new roles, or even give people time to prove that they could fit into new roles – i.e. your “production” work takes priority, but if you only had a few days to do some of your back burner tasks, it would make the company more profitable in the long run.

I have tied some of what you’re talking about into the “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” question as well. Instead of giving some wishy-washy platitudes, just say what you would like to do.

You can tell a lot about an employer depending on their reactions to your answers. For example, in an interview, I was completely honest with them in answering “Why do you want to leave?” and “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” They squaked at my long term career goals, so it didn’t warrant me taking a pay cut in order to take two steps forward.

By Nick Corcodilos
June 7, 2011 at 4:59 pm

What an outstanding thread… we could do a short “how to” book with your posts! A few comments:

“You didn’t leave your last job….it left you.” Don, that’s a pregnant statement! I like it, but I’d be careful. There are “qualifying” comments and there are “disqualifying” comments you can make in the interview. If you expand on that comment and explain that “it left you” means your company was going in one direction and you in another, I think that’s a good, neutral answer. If the interviewer misinterprets it to mean that your skills were no longer “working out,” that might get you disqualified.

What drives me nuts about interviewers sometimes is that they’re not machines. I usually want them to be more human, but sometimes they go haywire “analyzing” something you say to them. I wish they could be more straightforward, and no extrapolate a candidate’s comment into a faulty conclusion. Just take the comment at face value (be a machine) and move on.

“I want to spend more time with my family.” I think that can be very dangerous, if your goal is to get an offer. Your statement might be read as, “My family comes first and when the chips are down at work, you probably can’t count on me.” If your goal is to figure out whether the company believes in work/life balance, then the statement is a good test. But don’t assume it will be interpreted positively. Until I’ve developed some trust for a manager, I’m not getting into personal stuff. It’s all about how I’ll do the job.

I’m with Erika on exit interviews. Don thinks a kissy parting (hey, that’s Don’s term, not mine…) can be great. And it can. But to me, the downside risk of saying anything upon parting — anything that’s recorded and filed — is far too great. I’d rather do the exit talking offline, and skip the exit interview itself. Don, I’ll be kissy when parting if you’re my employer… but maybe not when it’s someone else ;-)

Back to Don: I agree it’s always worth being candid about your goals with the good employer. Everyone knows where everyone stands. The person who asked the question in this week’s newsletter was coming out of a lousy environment, and testing unknown waters where she was going. My advice was geared to that. But I’m glad this conversation has veered off into more general situations.

By Chris Henrikson
June 7, 2011 at 11:26 pm

I have a question about how to hold myself out to employers. I want to start a family, so if I mention that during an interview, would it hurt me or help me?

When I was younger, I thought it would hurt my chances because I would be less willing to do overtime, and take time off to take care of the children.

The other side of the coin is the assumption that a man with children is more stable, and will be more loyal to a company.

This is a tricky question, so I would appreciate any feedback that anyone may have.

Thanks!
-Chris

By Bob
June 8, 2011 at 8:34 am

Chris, Don’t mention it at all. Basically you are asking for paternity leave in advance.
Any theorectical future needs are off limits.

By Dave
June 8, 2011 at 8:55 am

@Chris

I wouldn’t mention your personal life, other than any information directly relating to the job at hand – i.e. “I attend industry conferences [on my own dime]” or “I’ve taken X classes at the local college in this subject area”

I’d say anything relating to family and personal needs should wait until the appropriate time.

(Looks like Bob beat me to the punch as I was putting my thoughts together)

By don harkness
June 8, 2011 at 10:15 am

Chris, like many questions about interviewing there isn’t a one-size-fits all answer. If you’re too rule bound you’re going to be so all business that the interviewer may think your a computer program.
good interviews are often conversational, a mix of shop talk and yes some personal aspects. And sure as Bob & Dave said there are minefields in personal conversation.
I’ve often had people tell me they want to start a family. In most cases it’s relevant to the topic that started this conversation…why are you leaving your current job?
Let me give you an example. Let’s say in your current job you’re a road warrior. It’s what the job’s all about. And let’s say your significant other or spouse is OK with that. But when you cross that line and want to have kids, road warrior and babies/tots…those dots don’t usually connect. What worked well as a job, won’t work moving forward. It’s the only honest explanation of why you’d want to change jobs makes sense.
As to paternal leave, or just general benefits dodging, you’d want to know about that at the time of the interview. Remember the interview has two sides, you need to find things out too. And in my example, you don’t want to commit to a new job, start a new family and find your new company doesn’t really like young marrieds with kids.

By Alison
June 8, 2011 at 12:13 pm

I don’t know what the statistics are, but I will bet that a majority of women in the workforce (yes, even professionals, not just hotel maids) have experienced during their careers some form of sexual harassment or discomfort with comments or advances made by men in superior positions. Women tend to support each other and advise new hires of the men likely to be offenders but don’t know this until after they’re hired. Maybe you have covered this before on asktheheadhunter, but I know at least a dozen women for whom this was a deciding factor in leaving a job, myself included, and it’s certainly something extremely few women would bring up in a subsequent job interview. A friend who recently quit a pretty high level banking position is in this exact predicament right now, trying to evade this question in interviews.

By Unicorn
June 8, 2011 at 12:53 pm

I think Don has it right…no one size fits all answer. I read somewhere people hire who they like. I think that’s true. We tend to surround ourselves with those like us as humans. This truth is unavoidable. The most attractive quality to healthy (emotionally) mgs/bosses is trustworthiness. You don’t make yourself look good being cagey.

By Linda
March 8, 2013 at 12:15 am

Hello,

I haven’t had any offers despite all of the interviews. My resume is good, had three jobs that lasted close to 18 years (1 1/2 years, 7 years, & 9 years) with good companies but my problem is that I don’t interview well. I get too nervous and even though I’m usually very articulate, i just end up stumbling my words. All of my previous jobs were through referrals but with the lack of jobs to the amount of applicants, I’ve been on my own without any luck.

My biggest initial problem is that I was terminated from my last two positions. The last job that lasted 1 & 1/2 years, got back from maternity and let me go after 5 months. But I was not happy there because I started to see how unfair the Director was (favoritism). So i took the opportunity to stay home and take care of our young daughter who is now 2 years old.

The job prior to that, I was there a little more than 7 years with a management change after my initial 4th year. The Director and I didn’t get along because her star employee got in trouble with the HR for yelling at me. Ever since then, she had it out for me.

Now, I feel that being canned from both places had nothing to do with performance, in fact, clients were emailing compliments. But at the end of the day, I was still terminated.

I’ve been reading from various sites that honesty is the best policy on why it is you’re no longer employed. But how do you explain why when it was because they didn’t like you and used bad performance to get you out? It always sounds so bad that I got terminated from my last two jobs.

By Linda
March 8, 2013 at 12:18 am

I forgot to mention that, now it has been 15 months since my last job.

By Nick Corcodilos
March 8, 2013 at 9:50 am

@Linda: You’ve already got your solution. You need to find your next job through personal referrals. Then an employer won’t worry so much about why you left your last job. The key is to be able to turn the conversation around to what really matters to a manager: The work. Try this: “Can you lay out a live task or problem you’d want me to handle if you hired me? Let me show you how I’d do it.” It can turn an interview around completely. Remember: The manager’s objective is to fill the position, not to have a long chat about your last employer. So try to focus on the work the manager needs you to do.

By Don Harkness
March 8, 2013 at 11:28 am

@Linda. You said something else of note. Clients were emailing compliments. If you kept the emails that would be great. If you didn’t but remember them or have contacts, don’t hesitate to reach out to them, not to badmouth your previous companies, but to let them know you’re on the market, and to line them up as references. Satisfied or delighted clients are golden.
As to the nervousness. Look I’m a 10th degree black belt introvert. There was a time back in the day when I had to interview too, and worse..stand up and make presentations. It’s an acquired skill.
You might consider dealing with it head on by joining a local Toastmasters group where you’ll learn to stand up and speak off the top of your head. Once you do, you may find it’s enjoyable. Then interviews won’t be so daunting.

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